Empress Matilda was the daughter of King Henry I of England and his first wife Matilda of Scotland. At aged 8, Matilda was sent to Germany in betrothal to Henry V of Germany, who was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope.
As Henry’s Empress, Matilda wielded authority when her husband was absent. She gained practical experience of exercising political power and widespread popularity as ‘Good Matilda’. When her husband died in 1125, Matilda was just 23 and childless, so she returned to England.
During her absence, her only legitimate brother William had died in 1120 in the ‘White Ship disaster’, when his boat sank during a drunken crossing of the English Channel. This left King Henry and England without a direct male heir at a time when every Norman succession had been fought over. To ensure the succession, Henry’s barons swore on oath to recognise Matilda, and any of her future children, as heirs to the throne.
In order to secure his Norman borders Matilda’s father arranged for her to marry Geoffrey of Anjou, son of the Count, who was then just 13 years old. After marriage to a powerful Emperor, Matilda protested this match to the son of a mere Count over a decade younger than her. She did this both before and after the marriage took place. The couple were known not to like each other, but after separation and reconciliation, they had three sons, Henry, Geoffrey and William.
When Matilda’s father died her cousin, Stephen Count of Blois, seized the throne and was proclaimed King by the people of London and was swiftly crowned. While her husband campaigned in Normandy Matilda challenged this, supported by her illegitimate half-brother, Robert of Gloucester. But the English barons claimed that they had been forced by the late King Henry to take their oaths of allegiance to her.
A civil war broke out between the two factions vying for power resulting in a period known as ‘The Anarchy’ and described as ‘when Christ and his saints slept’. In the conflict Stephen’s main supporter was his wife Matilda of Boulogne, who negotiated treaties and rallied troops for her husband. The war went on for almost 20 years, and legend has it that during this time Matilda made a daring escape from the besieged Oxford Castle where she climbed out of a window and escaped by trekking across a frozen river to safety.
At the peak of her power during April-September 1141, Stephen was captured, and while Matilda waited to be crowned Queen, the Londoners who were loyal to Stephen chased her from the city. In contrast to her popularity when Imperial Regent at her first husband’s court, Matilda was branded in chronicles as a haughty woman for her display of power during this time.
Eventually the war moved on to the next generation with both Stephen’s and Matilda’s eldest sons leading factions, and when Stephen’s son died he recognised Matilda’s son Henry his heir. Henry would go on to become King Henry II of England and marry another powerful woman of the period, Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine, whose first husband was the King of France. During her son’s reign, Matilda ruled for him in Normandy, and eventually died in 1167 at Rouen in France.
Overall, Matilda’s failure to gain power independently of a male was for centuries held as proof that women should not, and could not, sit on the English throne. She has also been marginalised by historians, particularly in the line of succession of British Kings and Queens, despite effectively ruling the country for 6 months in 1141. Matilda deserves to be recognised as a woman who attempted to uphold her rights despite the restraints of her time and in the face of disapproval of her as a woman making a bid for power.
Written for Sheroes of History by Stacey Dodd.
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The Lady of The English is a historical fiction novel based on the life of the Empress Matilda.
Marjorie Chibnall has written a factual book all about Matilda; The Empress Matilda: Queen Consort, Queen Mother and Lady of the English